Friday, January 27, 2012

Law and Disorder Radio -- Jon Burge, Former Chicago Police Commander Sentenced to 4 ½ Years; Bill Goodman: State of Democratic Rights; Sara Hogarth: Post Coup Aftermath – Honduras

Law and Disorder Radio (WBAI: New York City)

Jon Burge, Former Chicago Police Commander Sentenced to 4 ½ Years

Here on Law and Disorder we’ve reported on the ongoing developments of the Chicago Torture case and former Chicago police commander Jon Burge. Burge has been sentenced to 4 and a half years in prison for obstruction of justice and lying about torturing prisoners to obtain coerced confessions. The People’s Law Office brought the case in 2005 and the city of Chicago refused to settle while pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into the case. Attorney with the People’s Law Office Flint Taylor says the city has spent over the 10 million dollars in aiding the defense of former Commander Jon Burge. Mr. Burge, who is 63 and in ill health, was fired from the Chicago Police Department in 1993. Attorney Flint Taylor’s Statement on Burge sentencing.

Guest – Attorney Flint Taylor, a graduate of Brown University and Northwestern University School of Law and a founding partner of the Peoples Law Office. More bio


State of Democratic Rights – Bill Goodman

We’re joined today by attorney Bill Goodman former legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights. Bill has been an extraordinary public interest lawyer for more than 30 years he’s served as counsel on issues including post-Katrina social justice, public housing, voting rights, the death penalty, living wage and human rights work in Haiti. Bill delivered a speech recently titled the State of Democratic Rights, defining democracy as we now understand it. Everyone of these defining points has been attacked or undermined and very little has been done to repair them under the Obama Administration.

Guest – Bill Goodman, former legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights has been an extraordinary public interest lawyer for over 30 years, and has served as counsel on issues including post-Katrina social justice, public housing, voting rights, the death penalty, living wage, civil liberties, educational reform, constitutional rights, human rights work in Haiti, and civil disobedience.

Post Coup Aftermath – Honduras: Sarah Hogarth

Today we are joined by legal worker Sarah Hogarth who has recently returned from a human rights delegation to Honduras through the Friendship Office of the Americas. We talk with her about her observations on the post coup human rights crisis in that country. As listeners may know On June 28, 2009, the Honduran military ousted the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya. Former Parliamentary speaker Roberto Micheletti was sworn in as Zelaya’s replacement. Repressive tactics were used immediately after the coup–people on the front lines who oppose this regime have been beaten and illegally detained by the state. Journalists and LGBT activists were among the first to be targeted and killed. Dr James Cockcroft joins interview.

Guest – Sarah Hogarth, human rights activist in New York City. She is a freelance legal worker and writer and has recently returned from a human rights delegation to Honduras through the Friendship Office of the Americas. The delegation met with activists to learn about the human rights situation in Honduras in the one year since the elections in November 2009. In June 2009, democratically elected President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was removed in a military coup d’etat.

Guest – Dr. James Cockcroft, historian and activist, Jim has written 45 books on Latin America. He’s a professor at the State University of New York and is a member of the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban Five.

To Listen to the Episode

Claudia Springer: Taken by Muslims -- Captivity Narratives in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer and Prisoner of the Mountains

Taken by Muslims: captivity narratives in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer
and Prisoner of the Mountains
by Claudia Springer
Jump Cut

Prisoner of the Mountains does not simply reverse the terms of typical Muslim captivity narratives and naively assert that all Russians are destructive and all Chechens are kindhearted. Quite the contrary: there are trigger-happy Chechens eager to kill the two captive soldiers, and a Chechen man shoots his own son for the offense of working for the Russian police. Their violence, though, is shown in the context of their motivations, not as resulting from sadistic impulses. On the Russian side, even the Commander seems to have a change of heart and indicates that he may be ready to trade Abdoul-Mourat's son, an event that is foiled when the son tries to escape and is shot. Rather than paint a simplistic picture, the film suggests that empathy becomes possible when people learn about the realities of others' lives.

In Vanya's friendship with Dina, we see the film reject Orientalist divisiveness and replace it with what philosopher Martin Buber calls an "I and thou" relationship based on nonjudgmental respect. Vanya and Dina overcome inherited cultural myths that would make them enemies and learn to perceive each other as individuals, not symbols. This is the type of connection called for by Czech theorist Vilém Flusser, who critiques the insularity of people who identify too strongly with their homelands—their heimats—to the point that they reject foreigners and anyone with unfamiliar customs. Flusser offers as a solution to intolerance the condition of the migrant, a person who is not anchored to any one place and who "carries in his unconscious bits and pieces of the mysteries of all the heimats through which he has wandered" (14). The migrant, Flusser writes, works on "the mystery of living together with others" and poses the following challenge to all of us:

"how can I overcome the prejudices of the bits and pieces of mysteries that reside within me, and how can I break through the prejudices that are anchored in the mysteries of others, so that together with them we may create something beautiful out of something that is ugly?" (15).

Prisoner of the Mountains gives us a glimpse of two people—Vanya and Dina—who break through prejudices and briefly create something beautiful. Their friendship develops awkwardly and tentatively, initiated by curiosity and followed by small acts of generosity, leading up to her secret visits to the deep pit within which Vanya is chained after his failed attempt to escape with Sacha. In addition to lowering bread and water to him on a rope, Dina informs him of his fate, standing above him at the edge of the pit: "My brother is dead. You have one more night to live." Her elevation indicates her power over him, but their conversation reveals mutual respect, she by acknowledging that he has a right to know what lies ahead, and he by responding patiently. Their cultural differences are apparent, because her idea of being helpful originates in her beliefs about the afterlife, which are meaningless to him, but his responses, while indicating his despair, avoid undermining her. She says, "Usually they throw the enemies' bodies to the jackals. But I will bury yours." He asks her to bring the key to release him. She says, "No. I will dig a wide grave for you. And you will see the Angel of Death. I'll put my necklace in the grave as your wedding gift. Maybe your soul will find a bride in heaven." He responds with a gentle smile: "I don't think so."

Later, she does bring him the key to his leg shackle after finding it hidden in a box while the film crosscuts to her father returning to the village with his son's body in the back of a truck. Before she throws the key to Vanya, she says to him, "Don't kill any more people, promise?" Her request represents a significant shift away from her former acculturated hatred for Russians as well as an attempt to break the cycle of revenge that has trapped both sides in the conflict. She has learned through her friendship with Vanya to respect life—everyone's life. Vanya responds in kind when he refuses to leave in order to protect her from punishment. Her father, Abdoul-Mourat, finds the two of them together at the edge of the pit and sends her home after scolding her for being more concerned about Vanya than about her own dead brother. But even Abdoul-Mourat—perhaps following his daughter's example—rejects vengeance when he lets Vanya go after marching him into the mountains.

Vanya's respect for Dina extends to the film's refusal to eroticize her. Even when she dances for him, she is not objectified; her dance is grave and earnest and shot from a respectful distance. She wears a headscarf and boots and an ankle-length red dress with a dark jacket. Her dance is accompanied by wailing diegetic music from a funeral procession winding its way through the village. She and the other Chechen women—most of them weather-beaten and wearing headscarves—are frequently seen at work. It is their labor, not their sexuality, that defines them. Dina is seen working with donkeys, preparing food, cleaning up, knitting—preparing for life as a village woman—and she calmly explains her future to Vanya before she dances for him. He asks her, "Did you get married yet?" She replies, "No." He says, "I would marry you." She says, "We cannot get married. I can get married next year. We marry early here." Later, when she returns to the pit to tell Vanya that he has one more night to live, she is dressed entirely in black to show that she is in mourning for her brother but also suggesting that she is preparing to mourn for Vanya, taking on the role of his widow although they have never even exchanged a kiss. She stands above him in her black robe, embodying the Angel of Death as well as the bride she speculates he might find in the afterlife. Their union is symbolic, impossible in the world they inhabit but indicative of the connection they have made.

The film also treats the Chechen landscape, customs, and music, all initially strange and unfamiliar to the Russian captives, with respect. Perched on rocky cliffs, the village is both precarious and solid, built of stone to withstand the ferocious winds. A song sung by the village children tells of the longevity of the Chechen culture and the inability of visitors to tolerate the wind. The film was shot on location in the Russian Republic of Dagestan, neighboring Chechnya, just twenty miles from where fighting was taking place at the time. (Ironically and sadly, the region's harsh conditions proved fatal for the actor Sergei Bodrov Jr. a few years later when he returned to direct a film and was killed by an avalanche.) The music, cinematography, and editing combine to emphasize endurance. But it is all obliterated at the end with the offscreen Russian assault. Vanya's inability to conjure up the villagers in his dreams symbolizes the military attack's total erasure of their existence, eliminating their history along with their future. Instead of exalting military might—as does The Lives of a Bengal Lancer—the film raises questions about the morality of bombing raids on civilian targets as a military strategy.

The final crucial element that sets this film apart is its slow, deliberate pacing, counteracting the speed with which the Bengal Lancers engage in their adventures. Unhurried panning shots linger over the mountains and valleys and the village's worn cobblestone streets. It takes time to overcome enmity, and Prisoner of the Mountains measures time very slowly. Its choices provide a cinematic model for relinquishing Hollywood's tired anti-Muslim clichés.[2]

To Read the Entire Essay

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Open Culture: Alain de Botton Wants a Religion for Atheists -- Introducing Atheism 2.0

Alain de Botton Wants a Religion for Atheists: Introducing Atheism 2.0
Open Culture

Last summer Alain de Botton, one of the better popularizers of philosophy, appeared at TEDGlobal and called for a new kind of atheism. An Atheism 2.0. This revised atheism would let atheists deny a creator and yet not forsake all the other good things religion can offer — tradition, ritual, community, insights into living a good life, the ability to experience transcendence, taking part in institutions that can change the world, and the rest.

What he’s describing kind of sounds like what already happens in the Unitarian Church … or The School of Life, a London-based institution founded by de Botton in 2008. The school offers courses “in the important questions of everyday life” and also hosts Sunday Sermons that feature “maverick cultural figures” talking about important principles to live by. Click here and you can watch several past sermons presented by actress Miranda July, physicist Lawrence Krauss, author Rebecca Solnit, and Alain de Botton himself.

If Atheism 2.0 piques your interest, you’ll want to pre-order de Botton’s soon-to-be-published book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion.


Dan Ariely: The Upside of Irrationality

Dan Ariely: The Upside of Irrationality

Dan Ariely is the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Behavioral Economics at MIT Sloan School of Management. He also holds an appointment at the MIT Media Lab where he is the head of the eRationality research group.

He is considered to be one of the leading behavioral economists. Currently, Ariely is serving as a Visiting Professor at the Duke University, Fuqua School of Business where he is teaching a course based upon his findings in Predictably Irrational.

Ariely was an undergraduate at Tel Aviv University and received a Ph.D. and M.A. in cognitive psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a Ph.D. in business from Duke University. His research focuses on discovering and measuring how people make decisions. He models the human decision making process and in particular the irrational decisions that we all make every day.

Ariely is the author of the book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

Dan Ariely: The Upside of Irrationality from Booksmith on

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Left, Right and Center: Third Party Politics/Remembering Tony Blankley

(Dialogic is very sorry to hear that conservative critic and long time Left, Right & Center co-host Tony Blankley died recently. To hear the shows memories about/of Tony check out their episode Remembering Tony Blankley)

Third Party Politics
Left, Right & Center (KCRW: Santa Monica, CA)

Does America need a third political party? The backlash against Obama on the left and the tepid support for Romney (the "anyone but Romney” vote has gone from Bachmann to Perry to Cain to Gingrich...) would seem to make this a fine time for an independent party to emerge. But it's also the year of $1 billion campaigns and Citizens United funding schemes. Indeed, the only grass roots getting fed by cash are Republican friendly Tea Partiers. Aren't they an example of just how strong a stranglehold the two party system has on American politics?

To Listen to the Episode

Javier Ruibal: La Flor De Estambul

Erik Satie: Gnossienne n 1

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Raj Patel: Feeding Ten Billion

Feeding Ten Billion
Ideas (CBC: Canada)

The world just got its seven billionth citizen, and the population explosion shows no signs of stopping. In a Saskatoon lecture, writer and activist Raj Patel argues that the only way to feed everyone is to completely rethink agriculture.

To Listen to the Episode

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Hassan Ghedi Santur: On Being A Muslim In The West, Part 1 and 2

Ideas (CBC: Canada)

On Being A Muslim In The West, Part 1

Amid continuing tension between Muslim and non-Muslim populations in many western countries, the question keeps coming back: Is Islam compatible with western values? Hassan Ghedi Santur asks if someone can embrace the secular, pluralist democratic values of the West and still be a "good" Muslim?

To Listen to the Episode

On Being A Muslim In The West, Part 2

It is said that there is a struggle for the soul of Islam; a jihad for the hearts and minds of the 1.6 billion people who profess Islam as their faith. Hassan Ghedi Santur explores the intersection between religion, spirituality, and politics in the lives of Muslims, particularly Muslim women. He presents the portrait of an activist, an academic and a writer who are in their own way, changing the face of Islam.

To Listen to the Episode

Crime: Frustration

John Berger: Why should an artist’s way of looking at the world have any meaning for us?

“Why should an artist’s way of looking at the world have any meaning for us? Why does it give us pleasure? Because, I believe, it increases our awareness of our own potentiality.”
— John Berger, Permanent Red: Essays in Seeing (1960)

Rebel Diaz: Libertad

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Peeping Tom: We're Not Alone

Paul Tassi: PIPA Weakens as SOPA Gets Hypocritical

(via Nathaniel Hall)

PIPA Weakens as SOPA Gets Hypocritical
by Paul Tassi

Two internet censorship themed posts in one day today, as the issue is starting to snowball, and the tide almost seems like it might be turning. There’s been a new development about PIPA, the Protect IP bill that is the House version of the Senate’s SOPA initiative.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt), who co-authored the bill with Sen .Orin Hatch (R-Utah) has said he is willing to remove the most controversial portion of Protect IP, which would empower courts to demand that ISPs block access to certain foreign sites, effectively censoring them.

Leahy credits his constituents for giving him “insight” into the issue, but it’s also likely he changed his mind because many of the big name ISPs were not in favor of that section of the bill. A similar sort of provision still exists in the Senate’s SOPA however.

The second item of note is that SOPA author Sen. Lamar Smith (R-Tx) has himself been found guilty of violating copyright. The issue at hand is pointed out on, where it juxtaposes this screenshot of Smith’s website from before his SOPA days.

To Read the Rest of the Commentary and Access Hyperlinked Resources

Billy Bragg: Power In a Union

Robert Alpert: The Social Network - The Contemporary Pursuit of Happiness through Social Connections

The Social Network: the contemporary pursuit of happiness through social connections
by Robert Alpert
Jump Cut

The United States’ myth of opportunity holds that those who work hard may achieve, and that history is a progressive, forward movement in which the country betters itself through such hard work. Yet such optimism has consistently been tempered by a sense that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” inadequately define a satisfied life. Thus, the myth of individual success also frequently becomes a story about loss and failure. For example, based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the owner of a nationwide chain of “yellow journalism” newspapers, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) portrays Charles Foster Kane as having achieved material success at the cost of a life of dissatisfaction. Forcibly exiled from his childhood home, he remains consistently angry and alone as an adult. Even that champion of historical progress, John Ford, late in life enunciated the myth’s failure in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” grandly announces the newspaper editor. The successful lawyer, governor, senator and ambassador to Britain, played by James Stewart, is ashen-faced, however, when he realizes that the material progress he has cultivated on behalf of his country has masked the fact that Vera Miles, the love of his life whom he married, has never loved him. The myth maker Ford eulogizes instead the primitive John Wayne who has died penniless and alone in order to make way for that dream of “progress.”

This same disillusionment also runs through U.S. literature. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) is the story of Jay Gatsby, who believed in the myth of achieving material success and thereby the promise of a better future only to learn the futility of his quest and his loss of a more Edenic past. Thus, the novel concludes:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And one fine morning — So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”[2]

The Social Network deals with that myth of material success and an historical shift in values in which that myth has come to be accepted as fact. It is a bleak portrayal of a male, adolescent-dominated world in which connections, not relationships, are all. The director, David Fincher, has worked with different screenwriters on all of his movies, and his movies prior to The Social Network — such as Se7en (1995), The Game (1997), Fight Club (1999), Zodiac (2007) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) — have in common that nearly all have at their center a young man lost and wandering through a series of episodes in which he seeks to define a place for himself. For each of these characters the search is obsessively personal, and in each the character is mistakenly confident that his skills will enable him to triumph. For example, the newly married Brad Pitt as Detective David Mills in Se7en taunts killer Kevin Spacey only to become Spacey’s seventh victim. Michael Douglas, a wealthy financier in The Game, remains certain that he can outsmart those who run the Game only to “succeed” by the grace of those who control the game. Fincher’s characters are lost and angry, adolescents in the bodies of grown men. Even Panic Room (2002), whose main character is played by Jodie Foster, focuses on her illusion that she can acquire security through her ex-husband’s money. Aaron Sorkin, the creator of the TV series West Wing and the screenwriter of The Social Network, places Fincher’s central character in an historical context. As such, he elevates the individual failure of Fincher’s character to a cultural failure.

The Social Network bases its story on Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), who, while an undergraduate student at Harvard University, developed Facebook. Through deposition testimony in two lawsuits brought against Mark — by Eduardo Savarin (Andrew Garfield) and by the Winkelvoss twins, Cameron and Tyler (both played by Armie Hammer) — the movie recounts how what is today a worldwide phenomenon began in Mark’s dorm room. Like other Fincher characters, Mark is no less brainy, no less confident that he can outsmart those around him, and yet he fails in the end to find any personal satisfaction in his seeming success. The Social Network is especially bleak in that Mark’s personal failure gain him financial rewards in a world in which Facebook is everywhere, including Bosnia where, as a young associate at the law firm defending Mark remarks in disbelief, there are not even any roads.

Mark’s obsessive creation of Facebook results in a worldwide network of “friending,” an exchange of electronic data by persons who are physically and emotionally at a distance from one another. As such, this kind of friending offers a parallel to Mark, who becomes increasingly isolated from those physically surrounding him. Mark Zuckerberg’s contemporary success in business, measured in billions of dollars, results in his personal failure to achieve anything of value. Ironically, it was never about the money for Mark; as a high school student, for example, he uploaded for free his idea of an application for an MP3 player, notwithstanding an offer from Microsoft. Later, in his quest for success, he is oblivious to and uncaring about the consequences to others of his commercial success. As a result, by the end of the film, his success has cost him personal growth, his friendship with his one friend, and the loss of an idealized love of his life. While inventing an online “social network,” Mark is consistently visually framed as a young man alone, whether in his law firm’s large conference room on the night that a settlement will be reached in the two lawsuits or in the loft-like space of the Facebook office on the night Facebook achieves one million members and its entire staff is out celebrating.

The Social Network deals with male adolescents, such as Mark, who should be in transition to manhood but never progress beyond their adolescence. Taught that individual achievement of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is all, they lack any genuine empathy with others and hence any sense of social obligation or responsibility for its own sake. While Harvard University has long been co-ed, the movie portrays the college as an historic relic: the exclusive domain of its male students. It equates the exclusivity of its “final clubs,” fraternity-like clubs, with the busloads of women brought in by those clubs to Animal House-like parties. Mark’s failed quest was to become a member of a final club at Harvard, which, in Mark’s view, would lead to a “better life,” the contours of which, though, were unknown to him. Likewise, both in Facebook’s early stage when housed in a rented, suburban home in Palo Alto and later when ensconced in its high tech office space, adolescent males run the organization plugged into their computers with women as sexually available and often intoxicated or drugged objects. Women exist solely for the pleasure of these male adolescents who feel nothing beyond themselves and who thereby are inevitably alone in the midst of their noisy, crowded clubs.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Truth/Authenticity: Peace and Conflict Studies Archive

Apodaca, Greg. Greg's Digital Portfolio (Professional website for his digital retouching services with examples of his work: 2012)

"Authenticity." To the Best of Our Knowledge (June 13, 2010)

Bady, Aaron. "Lincoln Against the Radicals." Jacobin (November 26, 2012)

Ball, Norman. "The Power of Auteurs and the Last Man Standing: Adam Curtis' Documentary Nightmares." Bright Lights Film Journal #78 (November 2012)

Benton, Michael. "Review: Exit Through the Gift Shop." North of Center (March 2, 2011)

Billings, Andrew C. "Biographical Omissions: The Case of A Beautiful Mind and the Search For Authenticity." The Film Journal #1 (May 2002)

Curley, Melissa Anne-Marie. "Dead Men Don’t Lie: Sacred Texts in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai." Journal Of Religion & Film 12.2 (October 2008)

Daston, Lorraine. "How To Think About Science #2: On Paradigms and Objectivity." Ideas (January 2, 2009)

"The Documentary Real: On the ambiguous relation between documentary film and reality." KASK [Symposium that is recorded in video segments online of all the presentations: October 21, 2010]

Farrow, Robert. "The Wicker Man: Games of truth, anthropology, and the death of ‘man’." Metaphilm (June 20, 2005)

Hastings, Michael. "Army Whistleblower Lt. Col. Daniel Davis Says Pentagon Deceiving Public on Afghan War." Democracy Now (February 15, 2012)

Hedges, Chris. "The Death of Truth." TruthDig (May 5, 2013)

Herzog, Werner and Errol Morris. "The Act of Killing." Vice (Video posted on Youtube: July 17, 2013)

Kilpatrick, Connor. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." Jacobin (November 28, 2012)

Measom, Tyler. "Through the Lens: An Honest Liar." Radio West (April 28, 2014) [Documentary on The Amazing Randi]

Menon, Anil. "It's basically a framing problem." (excerpt) The Beast with Nine Billion Feet. Young Zubaan, 2009.

Morris, Errol. "A Wilderness of Errors." On the Media (September 21, 2012)

Phillips, Peter. "Project Censored." Boiling Frogs (June 4, 2010)

Sampson, Benjamin. "Layers of Paradox in F for Fake." Mediascape (Fall 2009)

Shenk, Jon. "Playback: Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line." Documentary (Summer 2013)

"Straight Outta Chevy Chase." Radiolab (April 1, 2014) ["Over the past 40 years, hip-hop music has gone from underground phenomenon to global commodity. But as The New Yorker's Andrew Marantz explains, massive commercial success is a tightrope walk for any genre of popular music, and especially one built on authenticity and “realness.” Hip-hop constantly runs the risk of becoming a watered-down imitation of its former self - just, you know, pop music. Andrew introduces us to Peter Rosenberg, a guy who takes this doomsday scenario very seriously. Peter is a DJ at Hot 97, New York City’s iconic hip-hop station, and a vocal booster of what he calls “real” hip-hop. But as a Jewish fellow from suburban Maryland, he's also the first to admit that he's an unlikely arbiter for what is and what isn't hip-hop. With the help of Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest and NPR's Frannie Kelley, we explore the strange ways that hip-hop deals with that age-old question: are you in or are you out?"]

"The Surprising History of Gun Control, School Shooting Myths, and More ." On the Media (December 21, 2012)

Tofts, Darren. "In My Time of Dying: The Premature Death of a Film Classic." LOLA #1 (2011)

Tracy, Andrew. "Genuine Class: All the Real Girls and All the Right Moves." Reverse Shot #29 (2011)

Vizcarrondo, Sara. "The Art of 'Killing': How Much Truth Comes from the Lie that Tells the Truth?" Documentary (Summer 2013)

Andrew C. Billings: Biographical Omissions -- The Case of A Beautiful Mind and the Search For Authenticity

Biographical Omissions: The Case of A Beautiful Mind and the Search For Authenticity
By Andrew C. Billings
The Film Journal

On March 24, 2002, the Academy Awards concluded with a Best Picture statuette awarded to Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, a biopic of the schizophrenic mathematician John Forbes Nash. While Nash's real-life story is remarkable, another story of "overcoming the odds" has been built: the story of how A Beautiful Mind survived a whirlwind of negative publicity to gain the Best Picture award. The controversy stemmed from perceptions that Nash's life has been whitewashed for the silver screen, including the omission of (a) Nash's alleged anti-Semitism, (b) his homosexual leanings, and (c) his divorce and ultimate remarriage to current-wife Alicia Nash (Bunbury, 2002; Lyman, 2002; Mcginty, 2002). Detractors argued that A Beautiful Mind was being irresponsible to omit such large issues, yet Universal Pictures stood behind the film, arguing that no one's life can be portrayed in its entirety and that A Beautiful Mind had been as accurate as possible. The studio went on to say that there was clear evidence of an "orchestrated campaign" against the film that had more to do with winning an Oscar than achieving authenticity (Seiler, 2002, p. 4D). Film historian Pete Hammond argued that this was one of the nastiest campaigns in recent memory, stating that "to accuse the subject of a film of being Anti-Semitic when you know that a lot of the people who will be voting on the Oscars are Jewish, well, that's really down and dirty" (Lyman, 2002, p. 1A).

Within the entire battle over A Beautiful Mind, one can extract a larger question prevalent within the debate concerning the responsibility of a film to portray a historical person or event in an accurate way. How far must a director go to ensure authenticity? In the case of Howard's film, the questions became quite complex. Take, for instance, Nash's homosexual leanings. Giltz (2002b) writes that Nash was frequently referred to as a "homo" in college and also was arrested for public indecency in a men's restroom, ultimately losing his job at the Rand think tank because of the arrest. In fact, the book in which screenwriter Akiva Goldman adapted the movie contained over thirty references to homosexuality, yet all thirty instances were omitted for the movie (Giltz, 2002a). Thus, while no one was arguing that A Beautiful Mind was telling outright lies, they did argue the film was guilty by omission. Contrast this with the equally ugly controversy surrounding the 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi, chronicling the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and the subsequent trial to exact justice thirty years later. Critics all agreed that Ghosts of Mississippi was "85 to 90 percent true", but, as Medgar Evers' brother Charles states, "the bigger problem is that other 'true' facts are shunted to the background" (Wiltz, 1997). In the case of A Beautiful Mind, some were even arguing that the film was 100% true, but that the majority of the whole truth was left out. In the case of Nash's homosexuality, it was not even an overt choice, as Brian Grazer and Ron Howard were forced to sign a contract that guaranteed the omission of such leanings. Thus, A Beautiful Mind becomes not a case of a director making choices of what to keep and what to leave on the cutting room floor; instead, A Beautiful Mind can be equated with the television journalist who agrees to requests to keep certain topics "off-limits" before interviewing a major public figure.

Hardt (1993) states that the "question of authenticity remains one of the major issues underlying the critique of contemporary social thought" (p. 49). Yet, one must wonder: could anyone, even Nash himself or his wife Alicia, tell a story that is 100 percent true? More succinctly, is authenticity attainable? The latter question must be answered in the negative, as authenticity is an ideal that is unreachable and that American society should implement a new standard for measuring the "accuracy" of historical film narratives. A Beautiful Mind is just the most recent in a long line of films criticized for not being "accurate enough." The debate has been waged for decades.

It is a common notion within academia that nothing we ever say is truly authentic; everything is borrowed directly or indirectly from someone else. In essence, every story we tell is someone else's depiction or at least someone else's language that has been instilled within us through maturation. For instance, if a person were to tell the story of how their first day of school was, it would be their own story, yet their language would be influenced by their background and through other students' perceptions. Clearly, it is likely that a thousand people could each live the exact same day and still render a thousand different authentic stories. Thus, the moral contact with self that Trilling (1969) describes does not really make a story authentic, but it can make a story true. For instance, people who were present at the assassination of John F. Kennedy would all have a true story to tell that would depict their version of the true happenings. Still, as evidenced in the past 30 years, there were many different sides to the same "Truth", making absolute authenticity impossible, even for eyewitnesses of the assassination.

As a result, Visker (1995) argues that the "subject" of any story should be dropped from any argument pertaining to authenticity; the only important aspect of the story is the author/storyteller's ability to recall or retell the story to the best of his or her collective memory. So, in response to the question proposed in the introduction, Visker would argue that who tells the story in Schindler's List is not important; what is of vital importance is that the person telling the story has the ability to tell the story as closely as possible to collective memory found from witnesses and research. In the case of Spielberg's Holocaust epic, this proved to have obstacles of its own, as critics subsequently learned that key scenes, such as Liam Neeson's great "one more person" monologue, were inserted for dramatic effect rather than for historic accuracy.

Yet, beyond the question of the "right to tell a story" comes the larger question of the need to tell the story accurately, another historical Holy Grail. As previously argued, there is no way any director or film producer can tell a story that somehow is or becomes a historical event. Three hundred factually accurate films about the JFK assassination could be made; still they would have three hundred different contexts, equating to three hundred different stories.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Jason Shawhan: "Qui Est Sylvie Braghier?" -- Identity and Narrative In Olivier Assayas' Demonlover

"Qui Est Sylvie Braghier?": Identity and Narrative In Olivier Assayas' Demonlover
By Jason Shawhan
The Film Journal

"I'm not in charge of anything." -Diane de Monx

Idealized human family relationships, at least in the time of the modern global economy, are a façade. The business world's model is not the proto-nuclear family, but rather that timeless combination of family structure and capitalist motivation: the mafia (1). Underlings enter a closed system, work their way up the ladder by seizing opportunity (and making their own, whether by action or omission of action), and if they manage to stay alive and useful for long enough, they are rewarded with largesse, respect, and the status of an elder. It's just like any established and powerful industry, but the similarities to filmmaking and its star system are particularly fascinating, especially considering some of the thematic ties I feel Olivier Assayas' Demonlover shares with David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2). If the industry is done with you, where do you go?

There is an unsettling relevance for the casual American viewer of the film. Given the disassociative relationship that many Americans feel with regards to their government (especially over the past two years) and the shifting political environments which time and again cede power to corporate expansion (Halliburton, etc.), what serves as an experimental meditation for some becomes all-too real and ominous for even the most insular of Americans. There is something about Diane de Monx's relationship to her job that speaks to any single person; with neither spouse or children, the world sees you as an expendable source of more tax dollars. "No pain, no gain," we are told, the risk encouraged, the loss devalued.

Much of Demonlover deals with pornography, but not just the glimpses of hentai we see at the TokyoAnime offices or the film that fascinates both Diane and Herve seperately in their respective Tokyo hotel rooms. The world that Volf and Mangatronics inhabit is fetishized with the porn of success: private jets, the freshest fruit, limo rides with stocked bars, the latest breed of cell phones, palm-sized DV cameras, and so very many screens of input (3). It isn't a new thesis that power and money, in extreme doses, lead to extreme habits. Pasolini delivered a fairly definitive statement on the subject with Salo, as did good old Aristide (Joe d'Amato) Massacessi with Emanuelle in America. And Emanuelle in America, so the legend goes, begat Videodrome (4), and from there we dabble in some of David Lynch's pair of psychogenic fugues (Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive), and we have the skeleton around which Assayas' film grows. An intersection between the degradation of the individual by an established industry and a vast conspiracy intertwined with the depiction of sadistic violence.

But it is not only pornography that gives us a key into the world of Demonlover; the influence of video games cannot be understated. This seems most readily apparent after Diane's Tomb Raider-ish infiltration of the hotel room of and catfight to the death with level boss Elaine (5). She kills Elaine, yet is herself taken out, only to awake on that same level with all traces of the battle gone. It is very fortunate for Diane that she had an extra life or two remaining at this point, a feeling which recurs throughout the film as it careens between its spheres of action. This also opens up the disturbing relationship that female icons are subject to in the vast spaces of the internet: Lara Croft, Emma Peel, Wonder Woman, and Storm from The X-Men are all icons of female power degraded at Hell Fire Club for the fantasies and delectations of countless faceless viewers (6).

Assayas' technical skill (along with his dynamic cinematographer Denis Lenoir) is undeniable, never delivering an unengrossing frame, fascinated with patterns of movement and concentric action. Before Elise's dramatic delivery of Karen's message to Diane, there is a stunning moment of the multicolored lights of the Paris streets, diffused through a misty windshield, and it is breathtaking (7). The surfaces which so readily proliferate in the world of the film often create refining subdivisions of the image, accentuating the delicious claustrophobia of the cinemascope frame in the enclosed offices, suites, studios, cars, and torture chambers of the film.

Having read Mark Peranson's interview with Assayas in the Spring 2003 issue of CinemaScope, I am grateful, as it gave me the tools with which to get to the heart of what happens with the story. As an example of the fragmented nature of modern life, it is spot-on, illustrating the way that much of modern thought moves in expansive leaps rather than in linear progression (much like the difference between analog and digital sound), and it is certainly one of the first films to comment on the way that DVD has changed the relationship between film and audience, as anyone with a remote can now unmake aspects of films, dive deeper into them, reshape its context, or just leave it sitting on the shelf in its appropriately fetishized box like the lovely ladies currently featured on Hell Fire Club. Accordingly with Assayas' expressed wishes, Demonlover is eerily relevant to how life is right now. It haunts, thrills, and acquires you; a shiny baubled collection of snapshots from right now, and, miracle of miracles, a film that digs into the soft flesh of the brain and stays there in the hippocampus, where nightmares live and fever dreams flourish.

To Read the Rest of the Review

Roderick Heath: A Dangerous Method (2011)

A Dangerous Method (2011)
By Roderick Heath
Ferdy on Films

I tend to blow hot and cold on David Cronenberg’s oeuvre, filled as it is with works such as Videodrome (1982), Naked Lunch (1991), and A History of Violence (2004) that strike me more as catalogues of interesting moments and ideas rather than completely coherent films. But it’s impossible to deny that the Canadian auteur has been one of modern mainstream cinema’s most consistently visceral, intelligent, and original fountainheads, and at his best, can be a fearsome artist of psychological straits and the overflowing id. Cronenberg’s reputation is still often immediately associated with his early, overtly horrifying essays in body distortion and corruption; thus, A Dangerous Method, his latest and one of his most subtle films, seems, in abstract, like an outlier. But A Dangerous Method’s guardedly realistic approach to character and historical setting revolves around some very Cronenbergian motifs, not the least of which is the strange and often perverse manner the inner self and the outer self relate.

The film’s early scenes are fixated on Keira Knightley’s unhinged performance as Sabina Spielrein, a young Russian Jewish woman who suffers from an overwhelming, physically manifest neurosis. Sabina, dragged out of the carriage that brings her to the Burghölzli Clinic in Switzerland in 1904, is placed into the care of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), a young, brilliant doctor at the clinic. He decides to employ Dr. Sigmund Freud’s theoretical and almost untested “talking cure” on her. Sabina, in the extremes of her disease, contorts and buckles and twists, her jaw elongating as things push about inside her, looking as if she’s about to explode like a character out of Scanners (1980) or undergo a transformation similar to Jeff Goldblum’s in The Fly (1986).

Sabina’s pathological pain and rage prove to have two sources: her hatred for her father, the kind of authoritarian who’d make her and her siblings kiss his hand after he struck them, and her powerful masochistic urges, partly imbued by that cruelty, that she can’t assimilate in any form other than as a kind demonic aberration. As Jung works with her, she slowly begins to return to a functioning state, and as part of her therapy, is encouraged to pursue her interest in studying medicine. Two male figures overtly and covertly influence her fate: Jung and his medical field’s unchallenged leader and guru, Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Not long after Sabina becomes Jung’s patient, the peculiarities of her case and Jung’s success in putting Freud’s method into practice becomes a catalyst for the two men to meet, form an initially powerful accord, and then slowly but surely break apart.

Freud, proud and fully aware of his virtually imperial position in a nascent realm of medicine, is actively searching for heirs apparent, and he soon declares Jung one. He entrusts to Jung’s care another of his potential heirs, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell), a cocaine-sniffing libertine who begins to preach total liberation from traditional familial and social forms, and who is considered insane by his own authoritarian father. His egocentric arguments coincide with a time in Jung’s life when his rich wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) is pregnant, and their marriage is strained, leading Jung to capitulate to his attraction to Sabina.

We live in a world where the catchphrases and oversimplified versions of psychoanalytic theory have gone through phases of utter disdain, near-religious acceptance, and back again. A Dangerous Method sets out to portray a window in not-so-distant history when ideas of the self and society seemed set for a radical change, and the consequences of that change were still potentially inexhaustible, but the people offering the change were still irrevocably tethered to the world as it was. Freud and Jung are portrayed as men caged by their worldly concerns. It’s not the first film to look at the formative years of psychiatry and its figures: John Huston’s amazingly undervalued Freud (1962) pitched the tale of Freud’s speculative development as an expressionist detective story where the younger hero fights through his own neuroses to uncover experiences and epiphanies that he converts into his classic theories. Cronenberg’s film takes a calmer tack and comments wryly on the way Freud, Jung, and Spielrein each in their way turn a fierce personal intelligence in on itself with analytical daring, and yet still constantly give in to bad judgment and behaviours they would reject and criticise in others. Freud proves a fascinating mixture of wisdom, moral rectitude, and a powerful circumspection, even timidity, in the face of disrupting social assumptions and straying beyond immediate scientific rationales.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Friday, January 13, 2012

Tereza Kuldova: Lookism -- Why we don't want to be perceived as "ugly" or "different"

Lookism: Why we don't want to be perceived as "ugly" or "different"
Book review of The Power of Looks. Social Stratification of Physical Appearance by Bonnie Berry, Ashgate 2008
By Tereza Kuldova

“When we consider the disparity in what we spend our money on, we find the depressing fact that, in the US, more money is spent on beauty than on education or social services. This fact shows the vacuousness of our society, but also may explain why we persist in the mainly pointless behaviors of buying beautifying products and services. If we are not educated, we may believe that physical appearance is more important than being learned, and we may rely on looks to accrue power instead of using our brains” (p.69).

The book The Power of Looks deals with one of those topics that impact all of us in our everyday lives every single day, one way or another. Namely our prejudices and conceptions of beauty and attractiveness and the ways in which we act on those and discriminate people based on their looks.

Bonnie Berry calls this phenomenon ‘lookism’, which is one of the many ‘isms’ we have to deal with in our world, such as racism, or colorism.

The book shows very clearly how the bias towards attractiveness and beauty creates profound social inequalities and determines our access to both social and economic power. It is not news that people who ‘look better’ have better chances to succeed, get jobs, pass oral exams and so forth. In the same way in which beautiful people are positively ‘discriminated’, those not beautiful enough are negatively discriminated.

This appearance bias, the beauty ideal created and supported and perpetuated by the media, advertising and cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies, creates a feeling in ourselves, a feeling of ‘not being good enough’, the result is anxiety (p. 57). We tend to constantly fix ourselves, be it through make up, clothes, plastic surgery, liposuction, teeth whitening (and more), in order to be perceived as ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’, if not beautiful. Being perceived as ‘ugly’ or different often leads to social exclusion, isolation, economic, social and romantic discrimination as well as lack of access to social and economic power.

What distinguished The Power of Looks from other popular books on this topic, such as the Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf or Beauty Junkies by Alex Kuczynski, is that it has a distinctively sociological take on the topic. This is a great advantage over the book Bonnie Berry published earlier, Beauty Bias, which was much more ‘popular’ and part of the same discursive realm as the books mentioned above. The Power of Looks has even two chapters on theory, method and possible approaches to the problem of social stratification based on our looks and to what she calls ‘social aesthetics’, from functionalism to symbolic interactionism. It is no doubt that this book can serve as a great introduction into the topic for students of sociology and anthropology.

For greater awareness about lookism

The most important aspect of this book in my view is however not its originality or its bravado of writing, but it is its message and the aim to build awareness about social stratification and discrimination based on looks. This is a message of acute importance in our world that is too often driven by media images of what is beauty and what it means to be beautiful, messages that fuel our continual sense of inadequacy and force us to recreate ourselves according to these images through consumption of products that often do very little to improve our looks. In the worst cases, these images, ideals and messages drive us under the scalpel where many have died. (See for instance this ABC news story Mother’s Death Highlights Dangers of Plastic Surgery).

The book is important in its focus on and analysis of these phenomena. And since it adopts a sociological approach, it not only builds our awareness about appearance bias and the way it shapes hierarchies and inequality, but it also gives us a conceptual apparatus to grasp these phenomena, to be able to conceptualize them, pinpoint them and talk about them. This is what I consider the greatest contribution of the book. And in line with the message of the book, I wish to draw your attention, in this review, to certain issues that the book raises and that I feel are interesting to think through and reflect about.

The topic of discrimination based on skin color is going through the whole book and it is interesting to think in this respect of the work of Nina Jablonski – Skin: A Natural History, which is a more evolutionary take on the topic of skin, yet definitely interesting – particularly the fact that from a biological perspective, white skin which is considered socially superior is in fact biologically inferior, in that it is easily prone to cancer and other environmentally caused damage.

To Read the Rest of the Essay and To Access Videos/Hyperlinked Resources

Thursday, January 12, 2012

FORA TV: Debate -- The Internet and Democracy (Andrew Keen, Farhad Manjo, Micah Sifry, Paul Solman, Jimmy Wales)

Debate: The Internet and Democracy


Andrew Keen is a Silicon Valley author, broadcaster and entrepreneur whose provocative book Cult of the Amateur: How the Internet is killing our culture was recently acclaimed by The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani as "shrewdly argued" and written "with acuity and passion."

Keen is a prominent media personality who has appeared on the Colbert Report, McNeil-Lehrer Newsnight show, The Today Show, Fox News, CNN International, NPR's Weekend Edition, BBC Newsnight and many other television and radio shows in America and overseas. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the London Guardian, The San Francisco Chronicle, Forbes, The Weekly Standard, Fast Company and Entertainment Weekly and has been featured in numerous publications including Time Magazine, The New York Times, US News and World Report, BusinessWeek, Wired, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Sunday Times, the Independent & MSNBC.

Keen is also a Silicon Valley media entrepreneur, having founded in 1995 and built it into a well known first generation Internet music company. He was educated at the universities of London and California.

Farhad Manjoo is an author and a staff writer for

Manjoo graduated from Cornell University in 2000. While there, he wrote for and then served as editor-in-chief of the Cornell Daily Sun student newspaper. Before taking a staff position at, he wrote for Wired News. Manjoo frequently writes on new media, politics and controversies in journalism.

Manjoo is the author of the book True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, published in March, 2008.

Micah Sifry is co-founder and editor of Personal Democracy Forum, a website and annual conference that covers the ways technology is changing politics, and, an award-winning group blog on how American politicians are using the web and how the web is using them.

In addition to organizing the annual Personal Democracy Forum conference with his partner Andrew Rasiej, he consults on how political organizations, campaigns, non-profits and media entities can adapt to and thrive in a networked world. In that capacity, he has been a senior technology adviser to the Sunlight Foundation since its founding in 2006.

He is the co-editor of Rebooting America, an anthology of writing on how the Internet and new technology can be used to reinvent American democracy, co-author of Is That a Politician in Your Pocket? Washington on $2 Million a Day (John Wiley & Sons, 2004), author of Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America (Routledge, 2002) and co-editor of The Iraq War Reader (Touchstone, 2003) and The Gulf War Reader (Times Books, 1991). His personal blog is at

Paul Solman has been a business, economics and occasional art correspondent for PBS NewsHour since 1985. He answers viewer questions on The Business Desk. He is also the presenter for and author of "Discovering Economics with Paul Solman," a series of videos distributed by McGraw-Hill.

Solman is part of a national consortium to teach "Financial Literacy" to Americans at every educational level. His work has won various awards, including several Emmys, two Peabodys, and a Loeb award.

Jimmy Wales is an American Internet entrepreneur best known as the founder of the Wikimedia Foundation, the charity which operates, and as the co-founder of

Wales received his Bachelor's degree in finance from Auburn University and his Master's in finance from University of Alabama. He was appointed a fellow of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School in 2005 and in 2006, he joined the Board of Directors of the non-profit organization Creative Commons.

In January of 2001, Wales started, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, and today Wikipedia and its sister projects are among the top-five most visited sites on the web. In mid-2003, Wales set up the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization based in St. Petersburg, Florida, to support The Foundation, now based in downtown San Francisco, boasts a staff of close to thirty focusing on fundraising, technology, and programming relating to the expansion of Wikipedia. Wales now sits on the board of trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation, and as founder continues to act as a key spokesperson.

In 2004, Wales co-founded, a completely separate company that enables groups of people to share information and opinions that fall outside the scope of an encyclopedia. Wikia's community-created wikis range from video games and movies to finance and environmental issues. Wikia's network is now ranked in the top 75 of all websites according to, and strong growth continues.

Wales has received a Pioneer Award, the Gottlieb Duttweiler Prize in 2011, the Monaco Media Prize, the 2009 Nokia Foundation annual award, the Business Process Award at the 7th Annual Innovation Awards and Summit by The Economist, The 2008 Global Brand Icon of the Year Award,and on behalf of the Wikimedia project the Quadriga award of Werkstatt Deutschland for A Mission of Enlightenment. In 2007, The World Economic Forum recognized Wales as one of the 'Young Global Leaders.' This prestigious award acknowledges the top 250 young leaders for their professional accomplishments, their commitment to society and their potential to contribute to shaping the future of the world. In addition, Wales received the 'Time 100 Award' in 2006, as he was named one of the world's most influential people in the 'Scientists & Thinkers'

To Watch the Debate

Spring 2012 ENG 102 Discussion Prompts

Chris Hedges: Empire of Illusion

"Debate: The Internet and Democracy"

Global Voices

Alain de Botton Wants a Religion for Atheists: Introducing Atheism 2.0

Democracy Now

On Being a Muslim in the West, Pt 1 and 2

Jeremi Szaniawski: Sokurov Waltz: Faust (2011)

Sokurov Waltz: Faust (2011)
by Jeremi Szaniawski

Alexander Sokurov’s Faust (2011), a free adaptation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s eponymous book, tells the story of Heinrich Faust (German TV actor Johannes Zeiler), an impoverished middle-aged scientist and scholar on a quest for absolute knowledge. Led to pawn off some of his belongings, he meets the local usurer, Mauricius Muller (Derevo troupe founder Anton Adasinsky), a mysterious and grotesque figure who seems to possess magical talents. Starving and depressed with the apparently unsolvable problems posed by the mysteries of the human soul, Faust asks his assistant, Wagner (Georg Friedrich), to provide him with a sleeping potion to kill himself. Instead, Mauricius, who pays Faust an impromptu visit, drinks up the potion and survives its lethal effects. From that moment on, the two men become inseparable, Faust constantly challenged by Mauricius and probing the usurer’s mysterious knowledge in turn. During one of their walks through the medieval town where most of the film’s action takes place, Faust accidentally stabs Valentin Emmerich (Florian Brückner), a young soldier leading a dissolute life. Following the accident, he becomes fascinated with the beautiful Marguerite (Isolda Dychauk), Valentin’s younger sister, whom he escorts home following the funeral. Through Mauricius’s intercession, Faust manages to provide Marguerite’s mother (Antje Lewald) with money, but when he confesses to having killed Valentin, it seems as though the young woman is lost on him forever. Mauricius seizes this opportunity to offer a night with Marguerite to Faust, in exchange for his soul—a contract the scholar must sign with his own blood. Following the fateful night, in the course of which Marguerite’s mother is killed with a sleeping potion, Faust and Mauricius flee to an unknown and strange land, where they meet the ghost of Valentin, and marvel at a geyser. Ready to move on, Faust quickly grows irritated with this spectacular but repetitive geophysical phenomenon. When he finds out that Marguerite will most likely be accused of her mother’s murder, he tears his contract to pieces, throws Mauricius down a ditch and casts heavy stones at him. Although Mauricius survives the ordeal, Faust is now left to fend for himself alone in a sublime and barren land of snowy mountains and glaciers, led by his unquenched thirst for knowledge and the voice of Marguerite, which may (or may not) be the calling of love.

Ever since the coming to power of Vladimir Putin in Russia, the cinema of Alexander Sokurov, once such a private chamber auteur, has grown bigger and bigger, both in scope and ambition. This was much in evidence in his ideologically questionable but technically admirable tour de force Russian Ark (2002), as well as in the ‘tetralogy of power’, begun in Moloch (about Hitler, 1999), Taurus (about Lenin, 2000), The Sun (about Hirohito, 2005), and brought to a close by Faust (which was awarded the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival).

In fact, it is not as though Sokurov went through some dramatic transformation with the coming to power of Russia’s new Czar: his cinema was always rife with grand, important topics and motifs (Death, the question of existence, the human soul and its destiny). But under the financial and ideological constrictions of the dying Soviet Union or the early, troubled post-Soviet years, the Russian auteur could not give them their fullest, most spectacular expression, opting instead for a sublime, if sedate cinema of decay, of slow and contemplative temporalities. With Faust, however, his most expensive (and expansive, in many ways) project, Sokurov not only crowns the tetralogy and its exploration of the nature of power and the price of the human soul, but also his career as a whole.

At first look, Faust does not really resemble Sokurov’s earlier cinema. To be sure, the perpetuum mobile nature of the steadycam evokes Russian Ark, and the Russian director’s trademark distorting anamorphic filters are much in use here. But his earlier films were generally characterized by slower, more static compositions. Nevertheless, Faust can be readily viewed as an magnum opus, a sum of all that has preceded, from the fairy tale environment of Mother and Son (1997) and late medieval imagery found in Hidden Pages (1993) to the apocalyptic considerations of Mournful Insensitivity (1987); from the obsession with death and funerary rituals (e.g. The Second Circle; 1990) to the pessimistic celebration of life and beauty (the ‘star child’ from Days of Eclipse; 1988); from the idiosyncratic literary adaptation and appropriation (Platonov, Shaw, Flaubert, the Strugatsky Brothers, and now Goethe) to the minimalistic original script (Stone, 1994), and for its profound investment with the grotesque and animal imagery.

As everywhere else in Sokurov, the film is strongly preoccupied with death, and presents a strong dialectic of body and spirit: following an opening aerial shot of the city, the film reveals a close-up of a corpse’s tumid penis. Faust and Wagner are trying to locate the human soul in the dead body, which instantly evokes early surgical works painted by Rembrandt as well as Mantegna’s dead Christ. As the body is lifted vertically on its slab, its innards gushing out through the open abdomen, the physicality of the cadaver, its sheer lack of spirituality and its banal, heavy presence are reminded to us in all their materiality. And whereas in Goethe’s book Faust was saved from committing suicide by an Easter procession, here the merry celebration is replaced not by one, but two funerals. In each case, the hearse and score of mourners in black are accompanied by the mysterious figure of Agathe (Hannah Schygulla), a sibylline cameo and an alleged Death figure who also claims to be the wife of Mauricius.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Girish: Difficult Cinema

Difficult Cinema

I've been wondering: What does it mean for a film to be difficult? Are there multiple ways in which films can be difficult? To put the question to myself in a more personal and subjective way: What are some films or filmmakers that I find difficult? And why?

I recently watched Andrei Rublev (1966), a remarkable and quintessential work of cinematic modernism. It can be called difficult for many reasons: it's three and a half hours long; the narrative is episodic and discontinuous; the film is structured in the form of chapters but often there is little idea of how much time has elapsed between them; there are dozens of characters, and the relationships between them are not always clear; to complicate matters, the same actors turn up in multiple roles through the film; Tarkovsky frequently drops narrative and character in order to focus on the elements (earth, air, water, fire) in an immersive, tactile way. In and beyond matters of plot, action, character and psychology, Tarkovsky poses challenges to interpretation, especially given the central theme of the spiritual -- the non-material, the intangible -- that runs through the film.

Robin Wood has a wonderful passage on the subject of difficult cinema in a 2004 essay on Claire Denis' I Can't Sleep. It appears in a section he titles "Confessions of an Incompetent Film Critic." Let me quote it at some length:

For people of my generation, who grew up in the 1940s/50s on an exclusive diet of classical Hollywood cinema (with the occasional British movie), the European ‘arthouse’ cinema always presented problems which linger on even today, a simple basic one being that of following the plot. This is not because the plot is necessarily complex or obscure, but, frequently, because of the way in which the characters are introduced and the action presented. When I grew up there was remarkably little serious criticism available (not much beyond the weekly reviews), and film studies courses in schools or universities were not even thought of. I was seventeen when I saw my first foreign language film (Torment/Frenzy [Hets, 1944], by Alf Sjöberg, from an early but already characteristic screenplay by Ingmar Bergman). I knew from the reviews that it would carry me far beyond anything I had seen previously, both in style and subject-matter, and my hand was trembling when I bought my ticket. I believe I had great difficulty following it (my first subtitles, not to mention extreme psychological disturbance). Fifty-five years later I still have the same problem when confronted with the films of Claire Denis (or Michael Haneke, or Hou Hsiao-Hsien…). The habits acquired during one’s formative years are never quite cast off; when I showed I Can’t Sleep to a graduate film group last year, my students corrected me over a number of details and pointed out many things I hadn’t noticed, although this was their first viewing of the film and I had already watched it three times. A classical Hollywood film – however intelligent and complex – is dependent on its surface level upon ‘popular’ appeal and its action must be fully comprehensible to a general audience at one viewing, covering all levels of educatedness from the illiterate to the university professor. (The same was of course true of the Elizabethan theatre – see, for example, the conventions of the soliloquy and the aside, wherein a character explains his/her motivation, reactions or thoughts to the audience). One of the cardinal rules was that every plot point must be doubly articulated, in both the action and the dialogue; another was the use of the cut to close-up that tells us ‘This character is important’; yet another, the presence of instantly recognizable stars or character actors. All of these Denis systematically denies us. It is a part of her great distinction that her films (and especially I Can’t Sleep, arguably her masterpiece to date) demand intense and continuous mental activity from the spectator: we are not to miss a single detail or to pass over a gesture or facial expression, even if it is shown in long shot within an ensemble, with no ‘helpful’ underlining and no 'spelling out' in dialogue.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

J. Michael Arrington and David Kirkpatrick: The Facebook Effect

David Kirkpatrick: The Facebook Effect

Author David Kirkpatrick traces the story of the most powerful social networking tool of our day from its humble beginnings to its role as an international phenomenon. He is in conversation with TechCrunch's Michael Arrington.

The Facebook Effect is the only book written with the full cooperation of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Started only six years ago, Facebook can now claim more than 400 million users and a potential valuation of $100 billion by 2015.

To Watch the Conversation

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Gogol Bordello: Immigraniada (We Comin' Rougher)

Dialogic Word-of-the-Day: Sapiosexuality

Definition of sapiosexuality :.

1. (n.) A behavior of becoming attracted to or aroused by intelligence and its use.

Origins: From the Latin root sapien, wise or intelligent, and Latin sexualis, relating to the sexes.


Douglas P. Fry: Peace In Our Time -- Steven Pinker offers a curiously foreshortened account of humanity's irenic urges

Peace in Our Time: Steven Pinker offers a curiously foreshortened account of humanity's irenic urges
by Douglas P. Fry

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, psychologist Steven Pinker stakes out a boldly optimistic view of the world, at a time when his readers are no doubt processing all kinds of bad news. Straining at the bigger picture of the trends afoot in human history, Pinker argues that violence is at an all-time low today—and human rights, social equality, and gender egalitarianism are at all-time highs.

With apologies to Shakespeare, we might say that Pinker, who has helped spell out the more arcane findings of his field in best-selling studies such as How the Mind Works (1997) and The Blank Slate (2002), writes not wisely but too well. He is a very clever wordsmith on a sentence-by-sentence basis, but in this newest work, serious problems arise with his central story line.

These shortcomings are especially unfortunate here since Pinker’s basic claim is itself largely on target: Physical violence has been decreasing over recent millennia. But the operative words in this formulation are physical violence and recent, and the chronology that Pinker adopts in The Better Angels of Our Nature deftly elides this recent progress with the bulk of the human story—chiefly by his simple failure to acknowledge much of that story’s earlier chapters. In essence, Pinker’s fable of steadily more peaceful human self-improvement starts not at the raising of the curtain, and not even in the middle of the play, but only in the final act.

This brings us to what readers of The Better Angels of Our Nature might call Pinker’s Big Lie—or what he leaves out of the human saga. For most of humanity’s existence, humans lived in nomadic bands and did not suffer from the chronic warfare, torture, slavery, and exploitation that Pinker, trailing Thomas Hobbes, imagines to be our species’ nasty and brutish natural state. For one thing, the very nature of nomadic-band social organization makes warfare, slavery, or despotic rule well-nigh impossible. The small social units lack the ability to engage in large-scale slaughter—and since positions of authoritative leadership are also lacking, there is nothing to plunder, tools and weapons are rudimentary, and population density is extremely low. For another thing, the archaeological facts speak clearly, showing for particular geographical areas exactly when war began. And in all cases this was recent, not ancient, activity—occurring after complex forms of social organization supplanted nomadic hunting and gathering. Pinker ignores this evidence. He also makes a big deal about the recent rise in gender equality and human rights, but turns an unaccountable blind eye to the highly demotic character of nomadic hunter-gatherer societies.

There’s a well-established body of literature chronicling early humanity’s egalitarian and peaceful past. In The Foraging Spectrum (1995), for instance, Robert Kelly offered this summary of the salient features of hunter-gatherer social life: “small, peaceful, nomadic bands, men and women with few possession[s] and who are equal in wealth, opportunity, and status.” Richard Lee and Richard Daly have likewise observed, in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers (2000), that nomadic-band dwellers

have lived in relatively small groups, without centralized authority, standing armies, or bureaucratic systems. Yet the evidence indicates that they have lived together surprisingly well, solving their problems among themselves largely without recourse to authority figures and without a particular propensity for violence. It was not the situation that Thomas Hobbes, the great seventeenth-century philosopher, described in a famous phrase as “the war of all against all.”

What this means, in practical terms, is that Pinker’s foundational narrative—holding that humans have lately emerged from a prehistory of widespread carnage into an era of comparative social peace and equality—badly truncates the actual story. Contrary to Pinker’s thesis, the incidence of warfare and mayhem actually describes an n-shaped curve, rather than a steep drop-off all at once with the advent of recent millennia. War was absent to nonexistent over the vast majority of human existence—off to the left of the n curve. But with a gradual worldwide population increase, the shift from universal nomadism to settled communities, the development of agriculture, a transition from egalitarian social structure to hierarchical pecking orders—and, very significantly, the rise of state-level civilization five thousand to six thousand years ago—the archaeological record is clear and unambiguous: War developed, despots arose, violence proliferated, and the social position of women deteriorated. This comparatively recent explosion in state-based violence is represented on the rising left side of the letter n in the curve.

Pinker’s conviction that he has uncovered a recent quantum shift in human behavior doesn’t exactly make him humble. “This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history,” he boldly asserts, and then continues: “Violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.”

This is bunk. Pinker is only able to make his sweeping claims seem plausible by omitting everything that occurred before the agricultural revolution (circa 10,000 BCE). He is sneaky about this, too, arguing, for instance, that reports of violence from his own self-selected “nonstate” societies from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would somehow reflect levels of violence prior to ten thousand years ago—i.e., a time when all of humanity lived as nomadic foragers.

The worldwide archaeological record contradicts the presumption that early humanity lived in a Hobbesian war of all against all. There is no evidence of warfare anywhere on the planet older than the ten-thousand- to twelve-thousand-year mark. In addition, numerous archaeological sequences show the birth of war on a regional scale occurred within the last ten thousand years.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Monthly Review: Notes from the Editors -- "The Occupy Wall Street movement has ushered in a new dialectic of world revolt"

Notes from the Editors
Monthly Review

In a little more than two months at this writing (December 3, 2011) the Occupy Wall Street movement has ushered in a new dialectic of world revolt. Occupy movements now exist in more than 2,600 cities across the globe. The response of the system has been increased repression. Yet, everywhere the movement has come up with new means of revolt. Had we tried in early October to predict how things would be at the start of November we would never have succeeded. Likewise we cannot predict now at the start of December how things will look even at the start of January. And it is precisely this quality of emergence, i.e. of not being predictable from the current state of affairs, which suggests that we are at a turning point. This global rip in the cloth of imperial capital’s supposed inevitability is irreversible; that we are fully ready to predict. Looking back it will be clear that as of late 2011, we are much closer to the start of a great global revolt against the plutocracy, the “one percent,” than to its end.

A select chronology (following up on what was provided in this space last month) points to the Occupy movement’s continuing momentum. Nov. 2 General strike called by Occupy Oakland shuts down fifth busiest port in the United States, protestors estimated in the tens of thousands, over a hundred arrested. Harvard students engage in a mass walkout in Gregory Mankiw’s Econ 10, protesting narrow outlook of orthodox economics and supporting Occupy movement. Nov. 3 Police fire tear gas and flash-bang grenades at Occupy Oakland demonstrators, arrest over a hundred. Five Seattle occupiers arrested in Chase bank. Nov. 4 Occupation of Paris financial district. Nov. 5 Bank transfer day, over half a million people in the United States transfer bank accounts to credit unions. Nov. 6 Twelve thousand protesters ring White House in human chain protesting Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta tar sands to the Gulf. Police arrest twenty at Occupy Atlanta. Nov. 9 Occupy Cal protesters encamp at bottom of Mario Savio steps, Sproul Hall, Berkeley. Nov. 12 Occupy Denver evicted, twenty-three arrested. Occupy St. Louis evicted, nineteen arrested. Occupy Salt Lake City camp cleared, nineteen arrested. Occupy Frankfurt protest against the European Central Bank. Nov. 14 Twenty arrested in Occupy Oakland eviction. Nov. 15 At 1:00 A.M. NYPD clears Zuccotti Park at orders of Mayor Bloomberg. Long Range Acoustic Device (“sound cannon”) best known for its military use in Iraq employed against Occupy Wall Street protesters. Four hundred students occupy UC Davis administration building. Occupy Seattle marches downtown, police use pepper spray, arresting six. Occupy Zurich protesters evicted, thirty-one detained. Occupy Paris camp destroyed by police. Nov. 16 Occupy Paris rebuilds camp. Nov. 17 Occupy Wall Street rally in New York draws a crowd of 30,000, three hundred arrested. Police use pepper spray on Occupy Portland protestors on Steel Bridge, arrest twenty-five. Twenty-three Occupy Los Angeles protesters arrested at Bank of America Plaza. Police tear down tents at Occupy Cal, Berkeley, two arrested. Occupy Dallas evicted, eighteen arrested. Seventeen taken into custody as hundreds engage in bank protests at Occupy Eugene. Occupy St. Louis blocks entrance to Martin Luther King, Jr. Bridge, fourteen arrested. Twenty-one arrested at Occupy Las Vegas. Occupy Boston wins legal victory allowing it to remain encamped. Nov. 18 Police pepper spray students at Occupy UC Davis while they sit arms intertwined. Occupy London takes over empty UBS investment bank building, establishes “Bank of Ideas.” Nov. 21 Occupy Oakland evicted from Snow Park in an early morning police raid, six arrested. Nov. 23 Occupy Columbia encamps on Statehouse ground in South Carolina. Nov. 25 Tens of thousands pack Cairo’s Tahrir Square in “Last Chance Friday” rally demanding the immediate end of military rule, capping a week of struggle that claimed the lives of forty-one protestors, and wounded 2,000. Nov. 30 Police dismantle Occupy Los Angeles camp, arrest two hundred. Occupy Philadelphia evicted from camp at City Hall, fifty arrested. Public Sector workers in Britain begin biggest strike in a generation, with two million workers engaged in one-day work stoppage.

To Read the Rest of the Editorial

Monday, January 09, 2012

Mother Love Bone: Man of Golden Words

Emily Manuel and Miguel de la Torre: Dumping Satan -- It’s Time to Let Go

Dumping Satan: It’s Time to Let Go
By Emily Manuel
Religion Dispatches

The history of Christianity, as atheists are fond of reminding us, is one that has been drenched in blood. Whether religious war, inquisition, or colonial violence, there’s been great evil committed in the name of God. What role has the idea of Satan played in the development of this culture? Theologian Miguel De La Torre, with co-author Albert Hernàndez, has just published a book, The Quest For the Historical Satan, that takes this question by the tail.

I spoke recently with De La Torre about the disastrous legacy the idea of Satan has bequeathed to Christianity, the dark side of God, and about the persistence of that Obama-as-Antichrist campaign.

What’s the general idea behind this new book?

God’s portrayal as a character of absolute goodness is the result of a theology that is read into the Christian Scriptures, yet which is not necessarily supported by a close reading of the texts.

Not only is this theology challenged by the Bible, it is also challenged by existentially and morally comparing such a theology of absolute Good versus absolute Evil with the realities of life. All have faced, or will face, tragedy, misery, illness, and death—events will occur that appear unfair, leading most of us to question if any sense of cosmic justice and mercy truly exists.

When we consider the billions of senseless deaths, tragedies, and atrocities which define human history, it would seem that history denies more than it confirms the paternal love of a caring and merciful father God. One is forced to ask, Where is God?

In a very real way, the search for the historical Satan is an attempt to justify God’s grace while legitimizing the reality and presence of evil in human history. It appears that the development of Satan was, to a certain extent, trying to save God from appearing as the source of evil that is so much a part of the reality of human suffering and death.

One of the fascinating things about the book is the way you trace the changes in conception across language, as with the Greek word daimonion which simply meant “god” or “spirit.” Did you think that shifts across languages reflect some of the later themes in terms of demonization of Otherness?

That was one of the things that we immediately discovered, that making the Other the demon or the representation of evil allowed those defending truth and honesty and righteousness to commit all types of horrors upon that they had defined as monstrous. That led us to thinking about how can we rethink Satan in such a way that will not lead us to demonize others.

You conclude with the idea of Satan as a trickster figure. Is that idea something you imagine contemporary Christians will be drawn to?

Quite frankly, the image of the trickster was always there, specifically in the Hebrew Bible; it’s a tradition of re-interpretation that makes Satan into the figure of absolute evil. My co-author and I look to the Hebrew Bible with an understanding of the ambiguity of goodness and evil. How will Christians today accept that? I don’t think that people are going to be waking immediately to this understanding, because we’ve had over two thousand years of conditioning. But I’m hoping it will at least begin a conversation.

You suggest that the personified Satan emerges as a solution to the central question of what theologians call “theodicy”—how can God be good when evil exists?

The book definitely wrestles with the whole theodicy question: how can an all-loving all-powerful God allow such evil to occur? But when we looked at the Hebrew Scripture, we really noticed that there’s a dark side to God. Even in Judaism today, there is this recognition that God does have a dark side.

What the creation of Satan has done is really save God from how the scripture understood God. Amos reminds us, “If there is evil in a city, has Yahweh not done it?” (Am. 3:6). The prophet Isaiah understands God to say, “I form light and create darkness, make peace and create evil, I Yahweh do all these things” (45:7). This is a God who sends evil spirits to torment, as in the case of Saul (1 S. 18:10) or Jeroboam (1 K. 14:10). We take those texts very seriously in trying to ascertain the very character of God.

To Read the Rest of the Interview

David HGB Giles: Dumpster-Divers and the Smoothies of Wrath

Dumpster-Divers and the Smoothies of Wrath
by David HGB Giles
Food Anthropology

My favourite Dumpster is locked.

I’ve been coming here for a few years, but now the lid is closed, and there’s a cable lock threaded through it to keep scavengers out. Scavengers like me.

Until now, I’ve poked happily about in the soggy detritus without obstacle. Hiding in plain sight at the end of a gravel driveway, outside the chain-link fence of a warehouse in Seattle’s industrial district, the Dumpster always promised at least a few unopened bottles of top-dollar organic fruit smoothies to the intrepid Dumpster-diver. Mango Madness. Orange Carrot. Hermetically sealed and conserved by Seattle’s frigid night air, they were nonetheless too close to their sell-by dates to be worth shipping, so they ended up here. On the right night, there were hundreds of them. There probably still are.

So why lock them up? My research with Dumpster-divers and grocers in Seattle and other cities around the US, Canada, and Australasia, explores the politics and the cultural economy of waste—particularly food waste. It echoes John Steinbeck’s dry observation of depression-era surplus and scarcity in The Grapes of Wrath: “The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price.” According to the USDA, for example, 5.4 billion pounds of unspoiled food are discarded by US merchants each year. A simple thought experiment and some rudimentary economics suggest that, if these edible surpluses were given away indiscriminately, the principles of supply and demand would undercut food prices. To paraphrase Steinbeck: Who would pay five dollars for a smoothie when they could pull ten of them out of the trash for nothing? In other words, what we throw away remains significant in its absence.

Of course, Dumpsters are not locked out of sheer Machiavellian cunning. Nor is food discarded with a calculating twirl of the capitalist’s moustache. Rather, food is wasted because it circulates according to its exchange value rather than its use value. Eleven perfectly good eggs and one cracked one are no longer legible in the way an intact dozen is, for example. And a bruised apple merely takes up space on a shelf next to another perfect one. A thing’s exchange value is, by definition, reckoned through comparisons. The apple that won’t sell, or won’t sell quickly enough, disappears from the shelves to make room for newer stock. So right up until the point of sale (or disposal), its value is virtual. Like Schrodinger’s cat, its fate waits upon one decisive moment.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Randall McGuire: Archaeology as Political Action

Introduction to his 2008 University of California book:

Archaeology as Political Action

Anthropology Blog Newspaper

Anthropology Blog Newspaper (Attempt to list and provide as a news feed -- all existing anthropology related blogs: ongoing)

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Timothy Garton Ash: The Stasi On Our Minds

The Stasi on Our Minds
Timothy Garton Ash
The New York Review of Books

The Lives of Others
a film directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Das Leben der anderen: Filmbuch
by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 216 pp., Ä8.50 (paper)

One of Germany’s most singular achievements is to have associated itself so intimately in the world’s imagination with the darkest evils of the two worst political systems of the most murderous century in human history. The words “Nazi,” “SS,” and “Auschwitz” are already global synonyms for the deepest inhumanity of fascism. Now the word “Stasi” is becoming a default global synonym for the secret police terrors of communism. The worldwide success of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s deservedly Oscar- winning film The Lives of Others will strengthen that second link, building as it does on the preprogramming of our imaginations by the first. Nazi, Stasi: Germany’s festering half-rhyme.

It was not always thus. When I went to live in Berlin in the late 1970s, I was fascinated by the puzzle of how Nazi evil had engulfed this homeland of high culture. I set out to discover why the people of Weimar Berlin behaved as they did after Adolf Hitler came to power. One question above all obsessed me: What quality was it, what human strain, that made one person a dissident or resistance fighter and another a collaborator in state-organized crime, one a Claus von Stauffenberg, sacrificing his life in the attempt to assassinate Hitler, another an Albert Speer?

I soon discovered that the men and women living behind the Berlin Wall, in East Germany, were facing similar dilemmas in another German dictatorship, albeit with less physically murderous consequences. I could study that human conundrum not in dusty archives but in the history of the present. So I went to live in East Berlin and ended up writing a book about the Germans under the communist leader Erich Honecker, rather than under Adolf Hitler.1 As I traveled around the other Germany, I was again and again confronted with the fear of the Stasi. Walking back to the apartment of an actor who had just taken the lead role in a production of Goethe’s Faust, a friend whispered to me, “Watch out, Faust is working for the Stasi.” After my very critical account of communist East Germany appeared in West Germany, a British diplomat was summoned to receive an official protest from the East German foreign ministry (one of the nicest book reviews a political writer could ever hope for) and I was banned from reentering the country.

Yet this view of East Germany as another evil German dictatorship was by no means generally accepted in the West at that time. Even to suggest a Nazi–Stasi comparison was regarded in many parts of the Western left as outmoded, reactionary cold war hysteria, harmful to the spirit of détente. The Guardian journalist Jonathan Steele concluded in 1977 that the German Democratic Republic was “a presentable model of the kind of authoritarian welfare states which Eastern European nations have now become.” Even self-styled “realist” conservatives talked about communist East Germany in tones very different from those they adopt today. Back then, the word “Stasi” barely crossed their lips.

Two developments ended this chronic myopia. In 1989 the people of East Germany themselves finally rose up and denounced the Stasi as the epitome of their previous repression. That they often repressed at the same time—in the crypto-Freudian sense of the word “repression”—the memory of their own everyday compromises and personal responsibility for the stability of the communist regime was but the other side of the same coin. After 1990, the total takeover of the former East Germany by the Federal Republic meant that, unlike in all other post-communist states, there was no continuity from old to new security services and no hesitation about exposing the evils of the previous secret police state. Quite the reverse.

In the land of Martin Luther and Leopold von Ranke, driven by a distinctly Protestant passion to confront past sins, the forcefully stated wish of a few East German dissidents to expose the crimes of the regime, and the desire of many West Germans (especially those from the class of ‘68) not to repeat the mistakes made in covering up and forgetting the evils of Nazism after 1949, we saw an unprecedentedly swift, far-reaching, and systematic opening of the more than 110 miles of Stasi files. The second time around, forty years on, Germany was bent on getting its Vergangenheitsbewältigung, its past-beating, just right. Of course Russia’s KGB, the big brother of East Germany’s big brother, did nothing of the kind.

After some hesitation, I decided to go back and see if I had a Stasi file. I did. I read it and was deeply stirred by its minute-by-minute record of my past life: 325 pages of poisoned madeleine. Helped by the apparatus of historical enlightenment that Germany had erected, I was able to study in incomparable detail the apparatus of political intimidation that had produced this file. Then, working like a detective, I tracked down the acquaintances who had informed on me and the Stasi officers involved in my case. All but one agreed to talk. They told me their life stories, and explained how they had come to do what they had done. In every case, the story was understandable, all too understandable; human, all too human. I wrote a book about the whole experience, calling it The File.

It was therefore with particular interest that I recently sat down to watch The Lives of Others, this already celebrated film about the Stasi, made by a West German director who was just sixteen when the Berlin Wall came down. Set in the Orwellian year of 1984, it shows a dedicated Stasi captain, Gerd Wiesler, conducting a full-scale surveillance operation on a playwright in good standing with the regime, Georg Dreyman, and his beautiful, highly strung actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland. As the case progresses, we see the Stasi captain becoming disillusioned with his task. He realizes that the whole operation has been set up simply to allow the culture minister, who is exploiting his position to extract sexual favors from the lovely Christa, to get his playwright rival out of his way. “Was it for this we joined up?” Wiesler asks his cynical superior, Colonel Anton Grubitz.

At the same time, he becomes curiously enchanted with what he hears through his headphones, connected to the bugs concealed behind the wallpaper of the playwright’s apartment: that rich world of literature, music, friendship, and tender sex, so different from his own desiccated, solitary life in a dreary tower-block, punctuated only by brief, mechanical relief between the outsize mutton thighs of a Stasi-commissioned prostitute. In his snooper’s hideaway in the attic of the apartment building, Wiesler sits transfixed by Dreyman’s rendition of a piano piece called “The Sonata of the Good Man”—a birthday present to the playwright from a dissident theater director who, banned by the culture minister from pursuing his vocation, subsequently commits suicide. Violating all the rules that he himself teaches at the Stasi’s own university, the secret watcher slips into the apartment and steals a volume of poems by Bertolt Brecht. Then we see him lying on a sofa, entranced by one of Brecht’s more elegiac verses.

To Read the Rest of the Essay